The Ex-suicide
135 pages

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135 pages

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The Ex-Suicide, Katherine Clark's fourth Mountain Brook novel, is a satirical comedy of manners about a prominent Alabama family living across the street from the Birmingham Country Club. The house happens to be where the writer Walker Percy lived as a child with his family until his father committed suicide in the attic with a shotgun. The only son of the current residents, Hamilton "Ham" Whitmire has several Ivy League degrees as well as a generous trust fund but is striving mainly to be an "ex-suicide," as defined by Percy's writings. As a result of Ham's intellectual aspirations and philosophical principles, and thanks to his trust fund, he has succeeded only in figuring out what he does not want to do with his life. Unfortunately this comprises just about all known occupations, but especially any involving the family business, which his imperious, society-matron mother insists he take over from his aging father.

When the novel opens, the thirty-seven-year-old son has recently returned to his hometown and taken a teaching position at a historically black college in the "other" Birmingham—not the one where he grew up. As an anxiety-ridden, panic-attack-prone depressive in a perpetual state of existential crisis, Ham must plan carefully how to get through each day without putting his life in the hands of the mental-health-care professionals. But, according to his mother, he must also take over the reins of the family business, get married, and carry on the family name.

Ham isn't in Birmingham long before he learns his college is also in an existential crisis and fighting to keep its doors open. Even worse, circumstances force him to take at least an interest in the family business. While seeking refuge and stability in the waiting room of his therapist's office, he finds himself in the emotional thrall of a beautiful old flame who is in the midst of a devastating divorce. She is anxious to have Ham back in her life, at least as an escort, but probably more.

Will Ham buckle under all the pressures—as Percy's father famously did in the attic of what is now his parents' home? Or will he be able to pull himself together and live up to society's (and his mother's) expectations? Fortunately Ham is one of Norman Laney's former pupils, and Laney never gives up on a student. In the midst of Ham's crisis, Laney steps into the breach in hopes that Ham chooses life as an ex-suicide.



Publié par
Date de parution 18 juillet 2017
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9781611177770
Langue English
Poids de l'ouvrage 1 Mo

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The Ex-suicide
Pat Conroy, Founding Editor at Large
The Ex-suicide

The University of South Carolina Press
2017 Katherine Clark
Published by the University of South Carolina Press Columbia, South Carolina 29208
26 25 24 23 22 21 20 19 18 17
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data can be found at
ISBN 978-1-61117-776-3 (cloth)
ISBN 978-1-61117-777-0 (ebook)
Front cover illustration by Ellen Fishburne
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
They all think any minute I m going to commit suicide. What a joke. The truth of course is the exact opposite: suicide is the only thing that keeps me alive. Whenever everything else fails, all I have to do is consider suicide and in two seconds I m as cheerful as a nitwit. But if I could not commit suicide-ah then, I would. I can do without Nembutal or murder mysteries but not without suicide.
Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

You can elect suicide, but you decide not to. What happens? All at once, you are dispensed. Why not live, instead of dying? You are like a prisoner released from the cell of his life. You notice that the cell door is ajar and that the sun is shining outside. Why not take a walk down the street? Where you might have been dead, you are alive. The sun is shining . The ex-suicide opens his front door, sits down on the steps, and laughs. Since he has the option of being dead, he has nothing to lose by being alive. It is good to be alive. He goes to work because he doesn t have to.
Walker Percy, Thought Experiment: A New Cure for Depression, Lost in the Cosmos

I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin, Hoping to cease not till death.
Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Birmingham, Alabama 1997
On the drive in to work this morning, he realized he had reached that point when he was going to have to face it; he couldn t continue to postpone the moment of confrontation. The relief he had initially enjoyed from delaying the inevitable had turned into dread of the consequences of delaying the inevitable. So it was time to stop procrastinating and address the situation. This morning his imagination had unexpectedly run riot, and conjured up a horde of nightmare images of what lay in store for him. So he had nothing more to gain from avoiding the actual reality of what lay in store for him. There was always the hope that it wouldn t be as bad as he feared.
But it always was as bad, or even worse. His first quick glance into the main office confirmed this fundamental truth. The narrow slot above his name was positively crammed with papers and ominous yellow manila envelopes.
Realizing that the secretary was watching him, he thought he should risk a small sally.
Well, he said, as cheerfully as he could, I can tell that the paper shortage must be over.
This was in reference to the administration s recent announcement that this year s budget had no room for big ticket items like paper.
The secretary smiled broadly through two chipped and gapped front teeth. She was a copper colored young woman with hair dyed to match the exotic shade of her skin. You re wrong, Dr. Whit, she said, obviously prepared to return his pleasantries. There s still no paper for the faculty. But the administration seems to have all it needs. She glanced in the direction of the mail slots, and then met his eyes, her grin wider than ever.
It s not a fair fight, he said in as lighthearted a manner as he could muster, while apprehension was overtaking his system like some form of paralysis. They ve got all the weaponry on their side.
So don t nobody forget, she grinned again. They the masters; y all the slaves.
Fortunately her telephone rang at just that moment, so he hastened over to the row of mail slots and began tugging at the pile of papers jammed into his. He hoped the secretary was too absorbed in her phone call, which appeared to be personal in nature, to notice just how hard he had to struggle to dislodge the contents out of his box. As soon as he succeeded, the onslaught began.
Colleagues, said the first item, a memo from his department chairman. Or chairperson, actually. Please remember to leave your door at least two (2) to three (3) feet ajar during all of your eight (8) office hours per week. Many students, especially freshpersons, are too intimidated to knock on a closed office door, or even a door left only slightly open. We as faculty must be as welcoming and accessible to our students as we know how to be. After all, they are literally paying for our time. They are our customers, and we are the service providers.
Waves of adrenaline began surging through his body. (He now understood that this unpleasant sensation was what the specialist had meant by stress, which apparently was partly the cause of his irritable bowel syndrome.) Although he had technically agreed to reduce stress in his life, he knew of no means short of his own death through which he could accomplish this worthy goal. He could no more control the surges of adrenaline shooting through his insides than he could control the slings and arrows shooting toward him from the outside. And it was of course this external fusillade which wreaked the internal havoc. Service provider was quite possibly the worst thing he d ever been called in his life. It was downright obscene.
But even worse, he knew immediately that this memo, ostensibly addressed to everyone in the department, was in actuality aimed specifically at him. Of that he had no doubt. During those times in the week when he was actually in his office during his posted office hours, he kept his door just barely open, so as to advertise his presence to the chairman in case she should be checking, but discourage any eager or intrepid students who might be seeking him out. He also needed that barrier against the odor of nail polish and the pungent smell of microwaved buttered popcorn, which could saturate his clothes so thoroughly he d smell like a movie theater for the rest of the day. All the other faculty members kept their office doors righteously ajar, and they could be easily viewed in a state of equally righteous productivity, busily grading papers or conferring with students or painting their fingernails. Fluorescent light and gospel music poured forth from these faculty offices. Whereas, if anyone had peered into his, they would have found the office in total darkness, except for the light through the tiny window, where he sat huddled in his chair reading the latest Maigret mystery he had checked out from the library. Simenon had written almost a hundred of these mysteries, but unfortunately they would not be enough to get him through the whole school year.
He supposed he should have known it was only a matter of time before he was busted. The only reason he hadn t been caught before for keeping fewer than the eight (8) office hours he was required to keep was because the chairman didn t keep eight (8) herself. Plus, he had taken the added precaution of scheduling some of his office hours during her class periods. That way she had no way of knowing whether he was in his office or not.
He leafed rapidly through the other material in his hands with more confidence. The worst blow had been struck, he felt, and nothing could be as bad as the chairman s memo. Indeed, the ominous manila envelopes contained only the most innocuous print-outs of the minutes from the last (mandatory) department meeting; the minutes from the last (mandatory) general faculty meeting; and the complete text of the guest speaker s motivational speech at the (mandatory) assembly, all of which he had failed to attend. There was no letter-as he always feared-that his contract would not be renewed for the following year; no summons-as there had been last month-to come talk to the dean about why he had missed the last three (mandatory) departmental meetings.
He said good-bye to the secretary, Ms. Wilson, and flinched as she said in return, Have a good day, Dr. Whit. It wasn t the persistent formality that bothered him so much as the persistent sensation of being a fraud whenever addressed by his academic title. Having obtained a Ph.D. almost by default, as it were, he did not believe he deserved to be called by the same lofty title as those who removed brain tumors and performed triple bypass surgeries. He wasn t sure, but he strongly believed that even if he were a true scholar, even if he were a real expert in some subject or field, he still wouldn t think he had earned the right to be called a doctor. Considering that he had embarked on his graduate studies only because he needed something to do when he dropped out of law school, he had a hard time thinking of himself as a professor rather than a law school dropout. There you go again, he could hear his therapist Lauren admonishing him. Defining yourself by your failures rather than your successes. But failure is so much more defining than success, he wanted to argue. However, he did not have time to carry on this philosophical debate with himself just now. The matter of the memo was weighing heavily on his mind, and he knew that he could not put off dealing with it right away, as he did with so many other issues.
He made straight for the cluster of modules, as the administration insisted upon calling the trailers which served as temporary offices, classrooms and even dorms while more than half the buildings on campus underwent extensive renovation. The English Department faculty all had their offices in Module #13, which was clearly marked as such with blue spray paint above the door.
Attempting to be as casual and nonchalant as possible, he popped his head around the chairman s very wide-open office door, but left the rest of his body out of view. Just wanted to say hi, he said, with what he hoped was breezy, unconcerned good humor.
The chairman looked up from her desk. Ah, she said, in that very formal, official manner he had not known her to have until she was made chairman at the end of last year. Dr. Whit. Come in, come in. She was a tall, statuesque woman of some six feet plus inches when standing, but even sitting at her desk she was an imposing figure who seemed to tower over his five feet five inches. She was dressed, as usual, in her customary African garb, the correct name of which he always forgot. They looked like robes or nightgowns to him. The one she was wearing today was a vivid purple with sunburst splashes of yellow. No doubt he was a prisoner of his unconscious white male bias, but her apparel seemed a direct contradiction of the memo she had sent out at the beginning of the semester, reminding all English Department faculty to wear professional attire in the classroom. This he thought had also been aimed at him, because there had been one day when he d run out of clean khakis and worn his best pair of blue jeans. If necessary, he had planned to assert that blue jeans were an inextricable part of his cultural tradition.
I don t want to bother you, he assured the chairman. I can tell you re busy. But you know I did want to tell you in case you were wondering-you know, about that memo you sent
Which one, Dr. Whit? Please do come in and sit down.
Oh, no, he said. I ve got class in a minute. (He didn t, but was counting on the fact that she didn t keep everyone s schedule in her head.) I just wanted to let you know that the reason my office door isn t open during office hours is because I ve got that first office next to the front door? And whenever anyone goes in or out-of our module, not my office-the opening and closing of the front door creates some sort of suction that pulls my office door shut. (This statement had the benefit of actually being true, although it was not the reason his office door was usually closed.)
The chairman nodded her head slowly, as if seriously considering the matter. I see, I see, Dr. Whit, she said. These modules are a trial to us all, aren t they? She paused as if to give him time to reflect on a reply. One thing you could do, she continued, is to prop your door open with a chair or some other piece of furniture from your office. Surely there is something that will serve the purpose?
A stab of panic struck and grabbed hold of his abdomen. He was going to have to improvise immediately. He gulped and plunged on, somewhat blindly, he feared. Well, he said hesitantly. You see, there s only one chair in my office-I mean, only one chair other than the one I sit on-when I m in there-and the other chair-the one I don t sit on-is piled with books and papers and-
Oh, Dr. Whit, I m so sorry, said the chairman in a totally different tone. I ve completely forgotten that you still don t have any furniture, do you?
He shook his head sheepishly, as if it were his fault. Just the desk and two chairs.
Still no filing cabinet? No bookshelves?
Again he shook his head. The chairman reached for a post-it note. I ll try to remember to get this taken care of once and for all, she said. Anything else you re missing? What about your telephone?
Well, I can call out, he said, but apparently, anyone who tries to call me gets the sound of a fax machine. He spoke quietly, as befit the uttering of a terrible truth, but truthfully, this was fine with him. It was wonderful having no ringing telephone, no voice mail, no direct way for students or colleagues or administrators-or his mother, for that matter-to get in touch with him on campus. What would they have been calling for anyway? To ask him to do something he didn t want to do: write a letter of recommendation, provide help with a paper, chair a committee. It was infinitely preferable to have his phone out of order. He had an ironclad excuse for being unreachable.
The chairman was busily scribbling on her post-it note, but as his phone had not been working properly for over a year, he had little fear that service would soon be restored. With half the buildings on campus under renovation and the other half crumbling into ruins, the Physical Plant people and the IT staff clearly had more problems than they could handle.
I really am so sorry, Dr. Whit. Please don t take these inconveniences personally. We all have to put up with something while the campus is being renovated. You are not being singled out. But do accept my apologies.
Oh, no problem. No problem, he said, with cheerfulness he didn t even have to fake this time. He now had every reason to be cheerful. He had gone in to the chairman s office on the defensive and left with the upper hand. He had come in to offer excuses for his closed office door, and instead was magnanimously dismissing her apologies for his lack of office furniture. He had turned the tables on her without even trying. There were certainly some advantages to being the token white male at a historically black college populated primarily by black females. Everyone was so concerned that he would take offense where none was intended that they pretty much left him alone, which had lately become his main ambition in life.
A similar experience had occurred last month when he went to see the dean about his absences from the English Department meetings. He had approached his appointment with fear and trembling, prepared once again to be on the defensive. He was even prepared to use his ace in the hole, the card he d been holding for an emergency situation, and tell the dean about his irritable bowel. (Although this was not the reason he chose not to attend the departmental meetings, he did in fact have an irritable bowel, and he was ready to provide medical documentation if asked.) The real reason he could not attend the meetings was because he also suffered from an intelligence quotient above zero. He invariably found that meetings of any kind held anywhere for any purpose greatly exacerbated this condition. After all, if he had wanted to spend any portion of his life attending meetings, he would have obtained an MBA as his mother had wished. At least this would have guaranteed generous compensation for any portion of his life spent in a group activity he deplored.
But he d never had to say much of anything to the dean in his defense. The dean had simply gone on at length about how much they valued him on campus, how much they wanted him to feel welcomed, how much they hoped he felt a part of the faculty. Then he had been asked point blank if there was anything or anyone who had made him feel unwelcomed.
Oh, no, he d said. It s just that
It s just what, Dr. Whit?
It s nothing. Nothing. He smiled.
For fifteen minutes, the dean of humanities-a genial black man with a shiny bald head and clipped mustache-had attempted to coax and prod him into finishing his earlier sentence, convinced that he had been about to disclose some act of prejudice or discrimination from one of the faculty members.
Finally the dean had leaned back in his chair and said, Well, let s just leave it that you ll come to me right away if ever you re in a situation where you don t feel you re getting fair treatment.
Oh, of course. Of course, he had said.
As he was leaving the office, the dean had bestowed on him such a look of admiration and gratitude that he d puzzled over it all day. While he had thought himself little more than a bumbling, mumbling jackass, he had somehow managed to rise exponentially in the dean s estimation. Finally he figured it out. The dean was convinced he was heroically covering for one of his African-American colleagues who must have offended him in some serious way. Then an idea occurred to him. Perhaps if he continued to keep silent about this offense, nothing more would be said about his missing the departmental meetings. He could continue to skip them and suffer no consequences. So far he had been right. He had not attended another meeting, and nothing had been said. He imagined the dean saying something in low, conspiratorial tones to the chairman: Well, if this is the way he wants to handle the matter who are we to insist that he pursue the official means of redress? It went without saying that as long as there were no administrative consequences, he suffered no other disadvantage from missing these meetings.
When he was safely behind the firmly closed door of his office, he opened his briefcase and pulled out his latest acquisition from the library: Maigret and the Killers .

Thirty minutes later, in Classroom A of Module #21, he looked out over a sleepy bunch of students who had not yet shaken off the somnolence of a Monday morning. Just last Friday, a mere three days ago, these very same students had been an intelligent and energetic group which had pounced ferociously on the ideas in Emerson s essays. For example: No law can be sacred except that of my own nature. Hands had shot up in the air. Who did he think he was? one student had asked. God? Another student had chimed in: He thought everybody was God. Remember? Somebody else had asked: You think he would have felt that way if he d ever been in the projects, Dr. Whit? It was fascinating the way his students had zeroed in on what he himself had always considered one of the main weaknesses in Emerson s philosophy. Somehow, he had managed to inspire them to read the material, make some sense out of it, consider it carefully and form their own opinions about it. The discussion had been an enormous success and made him feel just a little bit like God himself. It was not a sensation he was at all used to experiencing, and had certainly not lasted long, but it had boosted him through the weekend, which he had spent in a state of heightened preparation and anticipation for Monday s assignment.
But now that Monday had arrived, it was immediately clear that his students had not spent their weekend in preparation or anticipation of the assignment. Most of them had jobs, he knew. Young as they were, some even had children already. They all had complicated family obligations which frequently intruded on their schooldays. Even during a final exam, one or two cell phones that were supposed to be turned off would ring anyway as if with dire urgency. Today all were avoiding eye contact with him, and no one appeared to have a textbook out. If they were looking at anything in particular, it was either their wristwatch or the clock on the wall. He decided to launch forward anyway and hope for the best. Many years of teaching at a variety of institutions had proved that most students responded as intelligent life forms if treated as such.
I would like to call your attention to one of the most important statements Thoreau makes in the opening chapter, he began. The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What does he mean by that?
The classroom remained silent. Unfortunately, it was not the silence of mere mortals overawed by the profound musings of a genius. It was the silence of utterly apathetic students who had not even attempted to read their assignment and aspired only to endure the class period with as little discomfort as possible. He surveyed his pupils with what he hoped was carefully concealed disappointment. His star student-Tameika-the one whose extraordinary intellect he could usually count on to carry the day-was sitting hunched over her desk with her face buried in her elbow. Alice, another of his brightest students, was filing away at the remnant of a press-on fingernail while glancing casually down at her textbook as if it were an outdated magazine in the beauty salon where she awaited her manicure appointment. Vanity was digging through her purse in a frenzied attempt to turn off her cell phone, which had just started ringing in flagrant violation of his No Cell Phone policy. Three or four others were doing homework or worksheets for other classes, seemingly unaware, or perhaps unconcerned, that their industriousness could not be interpreted as notetaking for his class, since not one word was being spoken. There was only one member of the classroom even looking at him, and her name eluded him. Indeed, she looked completely unfamiliar, and it was quite possible that she was a new student who had just added the course, although it was approaching midterm. He could feel the bile rising in his gorge. It wasn t the personal rejection that rankled, he tried to tell himself; it was the insult to Thoreau.
Well, let me provide an example of quiet desperation, he said, as mildly as he could. Immediately he could feel some of the tension in the room subside, as the students knew they were not about to be called on and could safely remain in passive mode. Paradoxically, this had the benefit of bringing some of his students to life, as they could now afford to pay attention without fear of being put on the spot. Tameika, he saw out of the corner of his eye, had lifted her head out of her elbow.
Let s suppose you re a professor at a college, he continued. You entered your profession with high ideals about educating young people and passing on to them your love of say-literature and learning. But what you encountered when you actually began practicing your profession was a series of students who cared nothing for learning and didn t even want to know what literature is. They don t want an education; they want a college degree. And the job they think they re going to get with that degree. Most importantly, they want the money they think they re going to make from that job. He paused as he could feel more and more of the room s attention focused on his words and waiting to hear what would come next. What these students don t realize, he paused again to draw out the suspense even further, what these students just don t realize, he repeated, is that they re not going to get that job. He could hear a sharp intake of breath from more than one desk. Or these students are not going to succeed in that job or even keep that job. He paused once more as he could feel all eyes now riveted on him. Because despite their college degree, they don t have a real college education. And this fact will catch up with them sooner or later. There was another collective intake of breath. So this hypothetical professor is disillusioned and dissatisfied. His job is meaningless and unfulfilling. Yet he keeps performing this job year after year, day after day. This would be an example of the kind of desperation Thoreau is talking about. The desperation is quiet because the person in despair is not protesting or rebelling. He is submitting as if he s resigned himself for life.
He now had their undivided attention. Even Alice had stopped filing her nail. No doubt they were alarmed by his references to students not getting or keeping the jobs they were after, and assumed he was reminding them of his power either to propel them toward the careers they sought or forestall their progress. And of course they assumed he had been describing himself, and were fascinated, possibly even chastened, that a white man could consider himself desperate on account of their behavior. But while it was true that his life had always been one of quiet desperation, his students were not to blame. He d implied this mainly to goad them out of their Monday morning torpor, which it appeared he had succeeded in doing, as Tameika s hand now shot into the air. She had her finger on a passage in the text.
Yes, Tameika, he said gratefully.
She looked down to where her finger was pointing on the page. Is quiet desperation the same thing as being the slave-driver of yourself, which is a line in the paragraph above?
Inwardly he groaned. Naturally these students were hyper-aware of any reference to slaves or slavery, and resistant to the concept of slavery as a metaphor. Still, this was a beginning. Tameika at least had read the assignment and was now prepared to engage in discussion.

After what turned out to be a surprisingly productive dialogue between himself and Tameika, he gathered his books as quickly as his students gathered theirs and headed just as eagerly for the exit. Maigret and the Killers was proving to be one of the more interesting Simenon mysteries, as the French police chief had to confront violent American criminals unlike what he was used to in France. Two hours stretched ahead of him before he was due to teach his next class. Two delightful, uninterrupted hours of reading Simenon-behind a closed office door-and getting paid for it. He was more glad than ever that he had confronted the chairman right away about the new Open Door policy, and essentially received her dispensation for keeping his door unapologetically closed. His therapist, Lauren, would be pleased as well. It was her theory that his tendency to procrastinate, to postpone performing unpleasant tasks-like reading the memos in his faculty mail box-was at least partially the cause of some of his stress, which of course was the main cause of his irritable bowel. If he could learn to stop procrastinating about so many things both large and small, she believed, he would find his stress level going down and his symptoms abating.
But his spirits sank as he realized that the unfamiliar face of the new student was approaching him. This was a nuisance. He would be asked to produce an extra syllabus, which he didn t have in his briefcase. So he would have to invite her back to his office to get one. While there, she would no doubt want to know what she needed to do in order to make up for over half a semester of work she had missed, as if the burden were on him to prepare some sort of instant soup mix she could simply ingest instead of reading the required material. She might want lecture notes, which didn t exist, or hand-outs, which he didn t hand out. Most tiresome of all, she would probably want to linger in his presence in a chatty and cordial demonstration of good faith, as if one hour in his office could make up for the seven weeks of class discussion she had neither attended nor participated in. It had all been known to happen before. As far as he could tell, there were no rules governing how late in the semester a student could add a course; faculty were encouraged to welcome all new students, who brought with them tuition dollars, state funding, and the promise of reaching that 2,000 student enrollment mark. He sighed and forced a smile as he turned to greet this unwelcome new face.
It s Hamilton Whit, isn t it? she said. Or should I say, Dr. Whit?
He was thrown. Obviously she wasn t a student, although this was what she looked like: young and petite, in a tee shirt and blue jeans. His colleagues on the faculty, except for the chairman, were all older women of generous proportions, gaily be-decked every day as if for church, in dresses with vibrant colors or bold patterns. They tottered heroically through the mud-holed campus on precarious high-heels while sporting careful and complicated hair arrangements which changed daily. This young woman in front of him wore close-cropped hair, no makeup or jewelry, and running shoes. What or who could she be? Was it possible this was some new administrator who had just evaluated his class? Vaguely he recalled one of the memos warning of surprise visits to faculty classrooms by administrators in the humanities. He felt his insides tighten in that vise-grip he had come to know so well.
I m sorry, she said, extending her hand. I should have introduced myself first. I m Ivy Greer. The new hire in the English Department this year. She clasped his hand. You are Hamilton Whit?
Ham, he said, smiling hugely in relief that she was only a new colleague, and not a new administrator.
Ham? she repeated, clearly baffled.
Short for Hamilton, he explained. I m afraid my mother was as grandiose in choosing my name as she is in everything else she does. But I can assure you that no one else who s ever taken one look at me has ever called me Hamilton.
She gave a deep, full-throated laugh. I hear you on that, she said. Would you believe my birth certificate has me down as Ivory? She grasped the flimsy railing attached only tenuously to Module #21.
Until then, he hadn t realized how stock-still he had been standing, frozen in that moment of fear when he suspected she was an administrator. He followed her down the rickety metal staircase just in time to avoid the horde of students who clattered up toward Classroom A.
Are you headed back? she gestured in the direction of the module housing their offices.
He nodded tentatively, not sure what else was expected of him and hoping it wasn t much. He figured he d lost ten minutes already of his precious Maigret time. Not only did he not want to lose any more of that time, but even more importantly, he did not want to be pulled into too much interaction with the world outside himself, or he would have a much harder time blocking it out so he could read with the total concentration he normally enjoyed.
For a few moments they walked together in silence. Then she turned toward him, squinting against a surprisingly strong November sun. I really admired what you said to those students in there, she said.
What did I say? I ve already forgotten.
Again she laughed in frank, open enjoyment, as she had earlier, as if he were some witty and clever interlocutor whose company gave her deep pleasure. He found himself warming to this encounter in spite of himself.
She cupped a hand over her brows to shield her eyes from the glare. What you said about them not getting a real college education. Not being able to get jobs. I didn t think you d been to that meeting. And I didn t think anybody on this faculty would have the guts to tell those students what you did. But obviously, it needs to be said. I just hope you don t get in trouble.
Wait a minute, he said, as those guts of his cramped in pain. He found himself at a standstill again, not only frozen in fear, but dizzy and lightheaded as if on the verge of a full-blown panic attack. What meeting? What could I possibly have said that could get me in trouble?
She looked around as if to check for eavesdroppers. Why don t we talk in my office? she suggested.
Reluctantly he agreed. He didn t see that he had any choice. If he wanted to be able to clear his mind and enjoy his detective novel, he had to find out what she was referring to before he could consign it to the trash heap of oblivion. He began to trudge forward.
Then she was the one to seize up and stop in her tracks, laying a hand on his arm. On second thought, she said, I don t know about the office. The walls are too thin. Let s go sit in the coop. Or do you have office hours?
Of course he had office hours. Every daylight hour that wasn t spent in the classroom, it seemed, was supposed to be an office hour. He shrugged.
Me too, she chuckled, apparently reading his mind and seconding his thoughts.

They sat in silence for several minutes on one of the new teak benches facing Carver Hall. Ham did not think it was his responsibility to initiate conversation. There was nothing he wanted to say. He just wanted to get it all over with and go back to his office by way of the nearest bathroom. But she appeared in no particular hurry to state her business. Instead, she seemed to be enjoying the sun and gazing thoughtfully at the spectacle in front of her.
The generous expanse of lawn in front of the main administrative building had been nicknamed the coop because usually the campus s bedraggled peacocks were there pecking dispiritedly at the grass. The purpose of these peacocks was to complement the effect intended by Carver Hall, an imposing edifice of white limestone, fronted by fat white columns, all of which resembled nothing so much as a plantation manor from the Old South. It was affectionately called the Big House by every student, faculty member and administrator Ham had met so far at Cahaba College. He himself was the only one he knew who referred to it as Carver Hall, or Carver, and most people didn t know what he was talking about. But he simply could not bring himself to invoke such a visceral symbol of human slavery in the American South as the Big House. To his ongoing astonishment, the black population on campus could not have been more proud of the building they happily called the Big House, as if they were now owners of their own plantation. To them, the Big House seemed to symbolize the possibility that they could be masters in the society that had once enslaved them.
No doubt this was the fantasy it was supposed to conjure when constructed 100 years ago on the land grant dedicated by an Alabama State Legislature which was probably less interested in truly emancipating former slaves than it was in devising an educational system that was definitely separate and undoubtedly unequal. At any rate, the campus s embrace of the Big House suggested to Ham that many important lessons had never been taught or learned on this campus. First of all, black slavery in America was not over: Abolition and emancipation had never been thoroughly accomplished. It seemed to Ham that descendants of slaves should be striving to achieve this state of grace, and until abolition and emancipation had been fully established, they should only beware of the world that had imposed slavery on them and failed to completely eradicate it or atone for it. Because in striving to become masters in a society that had once enslaved them, these descendants of slaves had mainly been taught how to enslave themselves. Indeed, a few years back, the black population of Alabama had helped to elect the world s most notorious segregationist when he courted their favor for a fourth term as governor.
Ham suddenly felt the weight of the world thud into his bowels with the threat of imminent explosion. It was never safe for him to dwell too heavily on the implications of where he was and what he was doing at any given place or time. Unfortunately, one of the inescapable legacies of his former days as a philosophy student was his ingrained habit of thinking everything through to its logical and inevitable conclusion. Instead of helping him achieve success or happiness, however, this habit caused him only distress and despair. The ability to take the long view and see his whole life before him gave him only the vision of his own coffin being lowered into the grave. Nothing he could do would avert this particular endgame. So what was he to do with those few decades between this moment and that? In his thirty-seven years, he had arrived only at the conclusion that he would be neither a master nor a slave. He wasn t sure what this left him with, since the ultimate implication of doing anything within his abilities, in terms of its consequences for either himself or others, meant it would be far better just to sit alone in a room, like Pascal, and do nothing at all. In fact, there were several dark periods in his life when he had done just that, and the consequences for himself had been so dire that he had been forced to seek out practitioners of the mental health profession, who in turn had urged him to get out of [him]self, re-join the world, and do something with [his] life, in an uncanny echo of his mother s exact words.
So in lieu of going crazy, committing suicide or taking Prozac for the rest of his life, he was obliged to inflict himself upon the world, and had tried to do so in as inoffensive a way possible without involving the abuse or exploitation of his fellows. If he had to do something with himself and his time on earth-as everyone from his own mother to a celebrated psychoanalyst had agreed-then he could only do something which caused no harm to anyone else and brought more meaning into his life than he could derive from sitting alone in his own room and reading a good book. Otherwise, what was the point? How could he believe in his own self-worth, or the worthiness of what he was doing, if he was engaged in an occupation which caused harm, posed a threat, or added to the burden of absurd, pointless activity which harassed the universe?
Thanks to his grandmother, he didn t need the money. So as far as he could see, it was no less than his moral duty to make absolutely certain that whatever master he served in the form of a corporation, institution, government, profession, trade or craft was using him for a greater good that he believed in and agreed with. Up to now, he had succeeded mainly in figuring out what he did not want to do with his life, and unfortunately, this list comprised just about all known occupations. However, the world of education struck him as one of the few masters worth serving. Since he could not, like a doctor of medicine, help heal the body, he would offer what small assistance he could in helping others tend to the needs of the mind. He didn t kid himself that he was any huge success at what he did. But at least he could believe in what he was trying to do and find meaning in it as well; at least he wasn t hurting anyone or destroying anything in the process. In choosing to become a teacher, he believed he had adopted one of the few pure professions, which benefited other individuals and society as a whole while providing him with a small paycheck and some small measure of satisfaction without causing any harm in return. Although he knew it was possible that even the noble vocation of teaching could be twisted to serve despicable purposes, it s not as if he was an instructor for a fascist regime or a religious cult. As a professor of literature at an obscure college in the Deep South, he was fairly certain that he was not a mindless pawn in some overarching scheme of evil intent. As for being a do-gooder-as some on campus believed him to be-performing some form of charitable mission work by teaching at a black college, the simple truth was: it was the only place that would have him.
Today this place appeared utterly benign, and in no way deserving of the dark and sinister thoughts which had boiled up in him unexpectedly moments ago. Carver Hall was simply a beautiful building. A few years ago it had undergone a total renovation, its first in the 100 years since it was built. The limestone, which was indigenous to Alabama and had been dug from a nearby quarry, had been carefully and chemically scrubbed to gleaming white perfection. The inside had been gutted and transformed into thoroughly modern administrative offices, complete with the latest computer and telephone technology and lavishly furnished in the style of the corporate boardroom. The campus was justly proud of its architectural jewel. It was a welcome contrast to the other buildings on campus, which were empty inside and obscured by scaffolding and construction equipment outside. This morning the beleaguered peacocks were nowhere to be seen, the lawn was full and freshly mown, and the Big House positively dazzled in the sunshine. It was, in fact, a gorgeous fall day. Still, Ham wished he were inside his enclosed 10 x 6 foot space in Module #13 reading Maigret and the Killers .
He coughed and cleared his throat, but his colleague remained lost in her reverie. Perhaps, after all, it was incumbent upon him to speak; indeed, he reflected, he probably should apologize for not knowing who she was at this point in the semester. He had of course skipped the Meet New Faculty gathering earlier in the year. Just as he was managing to produce the garbled beginning of an explanation, she turned to him and said, Were you at that meeting last week?
He cleared his throat again. Which one?
That special joint meeting, she said. With the English Department faculty and the Education faculty.
Oh, that one, he said, though he had no memory of such a meeting being scheduled. No, I wasn t at that one, he added, as if he might have been at any other one.
I didn t think I d seen you there.
Well, I would have stood out pretty clearly, he joked.
This time she failed to laugh and he silently chided himself for attempting such a stupid and obvious joke. It never paid for him to forget that he could only generate humor when he wasn t trying to be funny and saw no humor himself in whatever he was saying or doing. In other words, he himself was the joke.
Then how did you know? she asked quietly. Who did you talk to? They said there weren t going to be any minutes from the meeting.
How did I know what?
She waited as a lone student passed on the walkway in front of them while casting a furtive look in their direction.
The administration is in an uproar, she said, stretching her legs out in front of her.
Instinctively he looked around him as if he could verify the accuracy of her statement with one quick glance then and there. All he saw, of course, was the peaceful beauty of a graceful old building rising up from lush green grass. Ordinarily this pastoral serenity irritated him, as it was such a contrast to the drab, dreary and defunct industrial community where it was located in Fairfield, containing what little was left of U.S. Steel, just west of Birmingham. Every morning when he turned off the main road and passed through the gates of the campus, he felt as if he were entering an alternate universe of fantasy and make-believe whose purpose was only to escape, or perhaps deny, the brutal truth of the real world outside the gates. In no way was that real world being confronted, challenged or overcome by those within the gates. He had grown up uneasily in a similar kind of alternate universe in an all-white suburb of Birmingham known as Mountain Brook, where most of the residences strived for the same Big House effect as Carver Hall. After spending most of his conscious life endeavoring to get away and then stay away, it was normally deeply troubling to feel that he had liberated himself from the artificial world of his youth only to become part of another artificial world as an adult. But after what his colleague had just told him, the calm gentility of his surroundings was reassuring. Nothing was in uproar around him; no one was running around in frenzy. Apart from the two of them sitting on the bench, no one else was even in sight at the moment. He waited for her to continue, though he didn t particularly want her to. He found himself gripping the edge of the bench and bracing his stomach against an onslaught.
To put it bluntly, she said, our school here just got an F.
Huh? He d been expecting a bombshell, but didn t know what to make of this.
She looked over at him with amusement playing at the corners of her mouth. You don t know what I m talking about, do you? she challenged.
Sheepishly he shook his head. I m sorry, he said.
Well you do know how we re a teacher s college? Right?
A teacher s college? What was that? He frowned slightly as if in concentration.
That was our mission from the get-go, as a historically black college, she explained. Like Tuskegee was an agricultural college. For black males. This place was a teacher s college. For the females. To produce teachers who could educate black children. That s basically what we re still doing today. Most of our students are girls, most are education majors, most get their teaching certificates, and most become teachers in the Birmingham public school system. You with me?
He nodded bashfully, aware that she had explicated basic facts he should have known. And come to think of it, he did know all this-especially the fact that most of his students were girls-it s just he d never thought about it or put it all together.
Well, she went on. You know how all public school teachers get evaluated every year? Before they get tenure?
Uh, yeah. He supposed he knew that, but was failing to understand why any of this was so compelling as to take over his free time. At least it was proving less stressful than he d feared. He felt his grip loosening on the bench.
Last spring the state board of education began tabulating the results of these evaluations, she said. The board wants to implement accountability standards for all teacher education programs in the state of Alabama. Each program is going to be rated based on the evaluation scores achieved by its graduates.
She paused to allow for his response, but the situation was becoming hopeless. She had lost him at implement accountability standards, which sounded like a foreign language he had not been required to take in order to earn his doctorate in American literature. He stared miserably at his lap, afraid to meet her eyes. Fortunately she was able to resume without his input.
They re trying to trace problem teachers back to their source. Find out what colleges graduated the failing teachers in the first place. Figure out if there are problem colleges as well as problem teachers.
Sounds reasonable, he offered, resisting the temptation to shrug. He didn t see how any of this had anything to do with him.
Yeah. Well, apparently a very high percentage of teachers in the Birmingham public schools who fail their annual evaluations are graduates of this college. She looked at him pointedly. That s what we learned at the meeting.
I can t say I m too surprised, he piped up quickly, glad he could finally play a part in the conversation.
No, she agreed grimly. You were quite right that the students here are not receiving a real college education. And now that has serious ramifications for everyone on this campus.
He felt his jaw go slack. Of course he had made that statement about an hour earlier, but he had not intended it to be taken so seriously-or literally. She glanced around the coop where a few students were beginning to trickle onto the walkways toward their next class.
It gets worse, she said, lowering her voice.
You know the main reason our graduates fail their teacher evaluations?
He shook his head.
They fail the written portion of their evaluation exam.
Meaning ?
Meaning, she glared at him as if it were his fault. They can t write a simple paragraph with basic proficiency. Stands to reason they can t teach anybody else how to read and write, because they can t read and write all that well themselves.
For a second time he felt his jaw go slack, although it was not news to him that most of his students couldn t read or write very well. Since becoming a teacher at Cahaba College last year, Ham had trained himself to overlook this point, because his basic survival instincts had told him the administration wouldn t like it if ninety percent of his students received failing grades.
I ve wondered, he ventured tentatively. How do our students even get their teaching certificates in the first place? Isn t there a-what did you call it?
Writing proficiency evaluation.
Don t they have to do that to become a teacher in the first place?
Yeah. They have to do it. She smirked.
They don t need to pass it.
If they fail, they can get their certificate anyway, if their college GPA is high enough.
And somehow, our students GPA is always high enough, he murmured, almost to himself.
Yeah, it s a racket, she concurred. You know what happens to the teachers who fail their evaluation?
He shook his head.
They get tenured.
He shut his eyes tightly and wanted to put his hands over his ears. He sincerely hoped she was not going to tell him how failing teachers ended up with tenure. He didn t want to know. She had already assaulted him with enough troubling information that he hadn t had time to process. He literally couldn t take any more.
Things could be about to change, though, she smiled at him ruefully. The Board of Education has already changed some of the rules. Come this spring, whoever doesn t pass the certification test doesn t get certified. Period. Your GPA can t bail you out. So you can see what this means for the college. Students were now beginning to fill the walkways surrounding the coop. Standing up, she smoothed out her pants legs and slung the strap of a battered leather carry-all across her shoulder. He stood up alongside her and was just about to make his farewells when she turned to him abruptly and said, It s not as if the headlines in today s paper help either. You know?
Ham didn t know. He read Shakespeare when he got up in the morning, and didn t see the point in subscribing to the local paper.
About the mayor? she prodded.
He nodded slowly. The news on his car radio had mentioned something . You mean the indictment? he said, hoping he d heard right: something about the mayor of Birmingham being indicted by a federal grand jury for . what? That part he couldn t remember.
Embarrassing, isn t it? she said.
I m sorry, he said, confused. I don t see-I m not sure He waited for her to supply the connection. When he realized she wasn t going to, he said What does the mayor s indictment have to do with ? With what? What had they been talking about? He was already blocking it out. This conversation had lasted way too long already-one whole class period, apparently. Not only had he lost a precious hour of his reading time, it remained to be seen if he would be able to make use of his second hour. The protective cocoon he needed around himself in order to block out the outside world and focus on his reading had been pierced and unraveled as he sat there with her on the bench. Now he just wanted to hurry over to his office and at least build his defenses back up before his next class. With dismay he saw she was looking at him with something like despair. She was also leaning over toward him confidentially, so that none of the passing students could overhear what she said.
The mayor is a graduate of this college, she whispered.
He was flabbergasted. Of course, he knew the city of Birmingham now had black mayors, but
Our graduates can t do shit! she muttered bitterly. The ones who become teachers can t teach because they can t even read and write. And the ones who become mayors? She shook her head in disgust. This guy thinks being mayor means taking kickbacks, spending the money in gambling halls that aren t supposed to exist in the state of Alabama, and then failing to report his winnings to the IRS!
Ham had really reached his capacity for hearing tragic news. He looked at his watch. Listen, he said.
I know. I ve got class in a few minutes, too, she said, squinting against the sun. But I d like to discuss this further. I think you and I must be the only ones on campus who really know .
Know what? He couldn t have been more surprised. He didn t know anything.
Don t give me that, she smiled at him. I know you know. Otherwise, you wouldn t have told those students what you did this morning. Can I drop by your office sometime?
His insides rose up in rebellion. No, really, he thought. He d had quite enough for one day. First the chairman; now this.
Why don t I give you a call? she offered. If you re not busy, we can go grab a coffee or something.
The phone in my office doesn t really work, he said apologetically. But my home number is in the faculty directory. Why don t you call me at home and we ll set something up?
Great, she said. I ve got to dash. My class is at the other end of campus. But I really do need to talk to you. I ll call.
Okay, he said to himself mostly, though it was to be hoped that the natural reluctance of most decent people to invade the privacy of a near total stranger s home would prevail and prevent her from actually making the call. Still, he was haunted by that I really do need to talk to you bit. What could that mean, exactly? If she had thought he was the type to get involved in things like accountability systems and state boards of education, surely his lackluster contributions to their discussion had demonstrated otherwise. She couldn t pick a worse person for an ally: he could barely manage the picayune affairs of his own insignificant existence. Tackling anything outside himself, especially if it involved a bureaucracy and bureaucratese, would be utterly beyond him. Surely when she d had time to reflect on the content of their discussion, she would realize how woefully lacking he had been and conclude that his effort wasn t worth enlisting in whatever cause she had decided to undertake.

When he reached Module #13, looking very much forward to resuming his reading of the Simenon novel, he was greatly chagrined to find Tameika waiting outside his office door.
Misinterpreting his look of consternation, she said cheerfully, Don t worry, Dr. Whit. I haven t been waiting long.
Good, good, Tameika. What can I do for you? He hoped he could dispense with this matter in the narrow hallway without having to invite her in to his office.
Don t you want to go in your office? she said, checking her watch. I can stand to miss a few more minutes of the class I m supposed to be in right now.
Are you sure? I wouldn t want to keep you, he said doubtfully. Why don t we make an appointment for another time?
Oh, no, she protested energetically. I got to see you now. I need your signature for this Change Major form which is due by noon today . She put tremendous emphasis on the last word.
Well, if that s all, he sighed in relief, opening the door and flipping the light switch which flooded the small space with so much fluorescent light it felt like an operating room. To his dismay, she looked around for a place to sit, and he was forced to remove the stack of books meant to discourage visitors from sitting in his only chair for visitors.
For the next fifteen minutes he listened politely as Tameika launched into a high-spirited declaration of how much she had enjoyed his classes since he started teaching last year; how much she had gained from reading the literature; how greatly she valued him as a teacher and considered him the best instructor whose courses she had taken in her three years at the college. Indeed, her entire experience under his tutelage had caused her to re-evaluate her career goals and her vision of the future. She had been forced to re-think her whole life, and in the process had come to the realization that she did not, after all, want to be a public elementary school teacher. She wanted to be a college professor like he was. Instead of getting her teaching certificate at the end of this, her senior year, and begin earning money the following year as her parents wished, she wanted instead to go for her Ph.D. Her parents were neither supportive nor encouraging of this decision, and she knew Mrs. Cooke, her advisor in the education department, was going to balk. Accordingly, she had been struggling with herself for the past month and had tried to reconcile herself to sticking with her original decisions and plans. But her reading of Thoreau over the weekend and this morning s discussion in class had opened her eyes once and for all. In fact, that s why during class she had actually closed her eyes and put her head on the desk. She was resolving to fight her parents and Mrs. Cooke right now rather than fighting quiet desperation for the rest of her life. She just needed his signature on the form so she could change her major from English education to plain English. Since she had taken so many literature courses already, she would still graduate in time with the rest of her senior class. But she might need his help getting into graduate school.
Oh, he said, trying to snap out of it. Yeah. Right. Sure. Of course. He knew that more was required of him in response to her effusive and copious flow of words, many of them quite complimentary to himself. So do you have that form for me to sign?
As soon as she had gone he pulled the Maigret out of his briefcase without bothering to look at his watch and learn just how little time he had left to enjoy it before his next class.

When he got home late that afternoon, the red light was flashing ominously like a warning signal on his answering machine. The only person who ever called and left messages for him was his mother, and the red alert was an entirely appropriate precursor to any and every communication with her. Unfortunately, ever since his father s bypass surgery a few years ago, he could not afford to ignore his mother s calls. And usually, she never stated on any of her messages the reason for her call, although it was invariably an emergency situation. So he never knew whether his father had just suffered another heart attack, or UPS had just delivered a package she wanted him to come carry into the house. A reasonable person might think he could assume that if there really were an emergency situation, his mother would surely not fail to let him know what it was on her voice message, and he could safely ignore any others as false alarms intended to manipulate and control him. But the reasonable person standard could not be used with his mother, who was so far from being a reasonable person herself that norms of behavior simply couldn t be applied. Her sense of entitlement was so extreme that she expected others to read her mind, to know what she needed or wanted without her having to actually communicate it. If his father had just had another heart attack, she expected him to know it without being told; likewise if the UPS truck had just deposited a large box outside her front door. Nor did he think his mother was capable of even understanding what constituted a true emergency as reasonable people would define it. To her, anything that caused her the slightest inconvenience or annoyance was an emergency that had to be dealt with right away: like a hose the yardman had left uncoiled on the patio. In any case, whenever she called she was simply delivering his official summons, and she expected him to obey immediately. No doubt she was waiting for him even now and wondering why he wasn t there already. Through considerable experience he had learned that it was less aggravating in the long run simply to head over to his parents house and perform the task his mother indicated. If he tried to refuse, postpone or even negotiate the time frame for completing the required chore, he succeeded only in provoking his mother s contemptuous wrath and prolonging the inevitable ordeal.
But this evening he was more exhausted than usual on the Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays he taught class at Cahaba College. Events had conspired to deny him almost any down time between his four classes, primarily because of the deadline in his two freshman composition courses. Less than half the students had shown up at the allotted class time to hand in their papers; most of the others had shown up at various other times in his office to explain, apologize, beg, plead or otherwise appeal to his mercy in all sorts of creative ways.
Then at a quarter till four, when he thought the onslaught was over and he had fifteen precious minutes before his last class, the telephone had unexpectedly started ringing. Every so often toward the end of the day, a caller might actually be able to get through on his telephone. He hoped his theory was correct: that the decrease in phone traffic in the later hours relieved some of the stress on an overburdened system, which enabled a call placed to his office number to make it through. It was terrible even to entertain the alternative: that the chairman s complaints-which he was hoping had never actually been lodged-had indeed reached the attention of the IT personnel, who had finally fixed his phone.
But when he picked up the receiver, the static and crackle at the other end of the line had been immediately reassuring. Eventually he gathered that his caller was a Mrs. Cooke from the Education Department. She appeared to be upset about their mutual student, Tameika Young, and her change of major. As their connection flickered on and off, he could make out only random words and phrases, such as not fair, sorry, and irresponsible decision. He assumed Mrs. Cooke was apologizing for the imposition Tameika s change of major would be on him-and come to think of it-there would be an imposition. Tameika herself had said something about needing help getting into graduate school, he now recalled, and furthermore, he realized she would probably become his advisee instead of Mrs. Cooke s. Still, Tameika was his brightest student, which meant she did her work, showed up for class, turned in tests and papers which required little marking, and therefore, she never needed to come to his office to manufacture excuses, requests or distractions regarding bad grades or poor performance. How much advice could this advisee need other than to keep up her good work? Accordingly, he had assured Mrs. Cooke that he was very glad Tameika had changed her major and quite happy to take her on. To his astonishment, Mrs. Cooke had exploded with anger and furiously questioned whether he had heard one word of what she d been saying. At that point, he d had to admit he d heard very little of what she said, as there seemed to be something wrong with their telephone connection. Then the worst had happened, and she d demanded to meet with him as soon as possible. His four o clock class prevented soon from being right away, but he would have preferred this to the alternative, which turned out to be tomorrow-a Tuesday-when he taught no classes and usually didn t go in to campus at all, although technically, faculty office hours were supposed to be dispersed over five days of the week regardless of teaching schedule.
So instead of heading over to his parents , he picked up the phone and called his mother.
Where are you? she said. I called over an hour ago. I expected you d be here by now.
I just got home, Mother. It s been a long day.
Well, the sooner you get on over here, the sooner you can get this over with. Your father and I will need to eat our dinner soon, you know.
It never occurred to her to wonder what he would do about his dinner while he was attending to his mother s needs, and she never invited him to join in their own meals. That experience was reserved only for wellestablished, long advertised and heavily promoted family gatherings, which usually took place when there was a football game he wanted to watch. Heaving a deliberate sigh, he asked what the trouble was.
Didn t you listen to my message? There s a tornado watch until ten-fifteen tonight. I need you to move all the bromeliads and hibiscus from around the patio.
He looked at his watch. 5:30. Harry s already left?
What does that have to do with anything? she demanded impatiently, though Harry was her yardman, handyman, and even her cook, who worked for her six days a week. The last time Harry moved the hibiscus, all the buds were knocked off and they didn t bloom again for two weeks. I want my patio to look nice for tomorrow s party. Anyway, Harry s busy with something else right now.
Probably preparing her dinner. He tried his best to conjure up a vision of his therapist and command the words Lauren had uttered to come from his own mouth.
I m afraid I can t come tonight, Mother, he mumbled.
What? When did you say you were coming? Speak up! I can t hear you.
I ve got plans tonight, Mother, he lied. I m already late as it is.
She sighed heavily. I ll just have to go get your father. You know I hate to disturb him, and he really shouldn t exert himself in this fashion. But it is your sister s birthday tomorrow, and if you won t help me out, I don t see that I have any choice. I just hope he doesn t suffer any consequences.
Briefly he considered pointing out to his mother the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning, along with the low probability that tonight s winds would be high enough to knock over any of her patio plants, all of which were well rooted in big pots that cost at least $500 and seemed to weigh at least that much in pounds. But the last time he had tried something to this effect, she had retorted that she didn t need him to be the weatherman; she needed him to help her prevent his father from having another heart attack. It was only Harry who could play weatherman, and say emphatically: Oh, no m. No need for dat. Wind ain t g on get dat bad tonight . She appeared to believe that Harry s African ancestry had imbued him with some supernatural access to the workings of the weather system, and she treated his pronouncements on what the weather was or was not going to do as if God himself had spoken.
I ll tell you what, Mother, he said. You ask Harry before he leaves if he thinks those plants need moving. If he does, then I ll come over-later on tonight-and do it.
Grumbling something unintelligible, she hung up the phone. With relief he poured himself half a glass of Scotch and sat down on the sofa beside his cat Tink, with the Maigret mystery open on his lap. As he took those first few transportive sips of his drink, he reflected that all the interruptions and irritants he had endured during the day had at least prepared the way for him to take particular pleasure in his quiet evening and as yet unread book. He was jarred out of this pleasant reverie by the shrill sound of the telephone, which normally didn t ring at his home any more than it did in his office, as his mother preferred to reach his answering machine when she knew he wasn t there, the better to issue marching orders without interference from the sound of his voice. He stopped himself from picking up just in time, in case it was his mother, expecting to reach that machine, since he had told her he was going out. But the voice being recorded on the message tape was that of his colleague Ivy Greer, wondering if there were any time he could meet with her tomorrow, on campus if necessary, but preferably off. He took another sip of his drink and stared into space.
Upon arriving at his parents house for a Family Gathering-in this case the celebration of his sister s forty-third birthday-the safest course of action was to head straight for the room where the boys were kept entertained by television and plied with their favorite foods in hopes of keeping them properly penned up as his mother believed boys should be. It was unthinkable that they join the grownups in the living room, and out of the question for them to play on either the spacious front lawn or equally spacious backyard. They would tear up the grass, trample the flowers, perhaps break a window or flower pot with their ball play. They would cause immense disruption when they barreled indoors, hot, sweaty, hungry and thirsty; full of rambunctious excitement and tales to tell of outdoor exploits; clamoring for their needs to be met. They would also track in dirt, mud and grass, and ruin the floors and the furniture as they had already ruined their clothes. His mother would not have it.
The room where his nephews were to be found was his old bedroom, now converted more or less into a den, with comfortable, overstuffed sofas and a large television. Long before the grandsons were even born, his mother had complained about not having a den and at one point proposed converting the library for this purpose, until Norman Laney-her friend and his former teacher-had talked her out of it. Under no circumstances can you do that, he had told her. That was LeRoy Percy s library, and if you alter it in any way, history will never forgive you. His mother was not fully aware who the Percy family was: there were no longer any Percys in Birmingham that she needed to know, impress, or entertain. And she felt no responsibility either to history or the literature that one of the Percy sons had written, which she had no intentions of reading. But she depended heavily on Norman Laney s guidance and followed it without question, though not always without grumbling. So the library had been spared and his bedroom was transformed by an expensive interior decorator. He didn t much mind, though he would have liked to know the precise mental calculus by which his mother had selected the site of his childhood to be obliterated rather than his sister s, which adjoined the hall bathroom and would have made the more obvious choice. He put no stock in his mother s contention that his sister s old room made the better guest quarters, as his parents never had guests who stayed the night, not even their own grandchildren.
This evening the boys had a different sitter who nevertheless looked quite familiar to him. Of course his nephews-ages seven and nine-did not in any way need a sitter for these occasions, but as his sister had pointed out: if their mother was actually willing to part with cash to pay for services rendered by another person, why stop her? And if it gave their mother the peace of mind to be more agreeable-or less disagreeable-for the duration of the Family Gathering, then it was all the more worthwhile.
Normally, Ham spent the entire cocktail hour with his nephews, laughing happily along with them at whatever movie had been supplied, and snacking from the bowls of popcorn and pretzels placed on the coffee table. It was usually the most enjoyable part of any Family Gathering for him, and one less hour of ammunition for his mother, who invariably called him the next day to deliver her critique of his clothes, his conversation, his manners, his personal grooming choices and general demeanor. Lapses in any of these areas were treated as serious moral failings. But tonight his sister unexpectedly appeared in the doorway ten minutes after he had arrived. He rose dutifully to greet her and wish her a happy birthday.
I m here to summon you, she said, withdrawing from his embrace. The swift scrutiny of the medical professional she gave him was in some ways more uncomfortable than what he endured from his mother. She wants you in the living room.
No need to ask who she referred to.
Sure, he said, smoothing his pants. What s up? Nothing wrong, I hope?
Someone she wants you to meet.
That would explain it. Someone of the female persuasion, I take it?
You re to be polite to her, attentive to her, sit next to her at dinner and converse with her. Then after a suitable interval, propose to her, marry her, and have children.
Well, if that s all, he said, trying his best to be cheerful. Inwardly he frowned. His mother had done this to him before, of course, but always he had advance warning in the form of a phone call telling him what to wear, what to talk about, what not to talk about, what the girl s father did for a living, and what sort of people the girl s mother came from.
Everything all right here, Patrice? said his sister, turning to leave.
Patrice. Quickly he looked over and caught her eye before she lowered her gaze bashfully as she had done when he first entered. Patrice? he said.
She met his eyes again and grinned this time.
Patrice is a freshman in my composition class, he explained to his sister.
Yes, I know, said his sister a bit impatiently.
You know?
She s also Harry s granddaughter, if you ll recall. We better get in there before Mother comes in here on a rampage.
This point was too compelling to argue, and he didn t have time to say anything further to Patrice or wonder how he was supposed to recall something he d never been told before.
In the living room along with his parents and brother-in-law was a young woman he already knew but hadn t seen in such a long time that his image of her was that of the gangly kid she d been when he last saw her. He d liked her then, and was so relieved by his mother s choice he was able to greet her with all the natural enthusiasm his mother would have wished him to simulate otherwise. No doubt it was just his imagination, but he believed he could even feel his mother s rarely given approval wash over him as he turned back to his date after greeting the other family members.
Erica Cooley was not quite ten-perhaps seven or eight-years younger than he was, and he knew her primarily because her father, who owned a construction and development company, had been involved in many business ventures with his father. There was an older sister closer to his own age, but he had never liked her and used to avoid her whenever he found himself around her. Ginger was a carbon copy of her mother, both in looks and in personality, which seemed deliberately designed for the sole purpose of prevailing at cocktail parties. With either Ginger or her mother, there was no such thing as even a simple hello or good-bye. Once they entered a room, everything they said or did possessed a kind of madcap theatricality calculated to draw every eye and command a large audience. Both the mother and the older daughter had the natural advantage of being about six feet tall and lean-limbed like exotic zoo creatures. Most people thought they were beautiful; perhaps he would have thought so too if not for the personality that accompanied their looks. They combined the graceful, slender elegance of the giraffe with the chattering antics of a gibbon monkey. Mrs.

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